MCA - 2003 – 76 min

"Hip-hop is the new jazz" went the rallying cry of a generation of rappers. Jazz's emphasis on the free expression of a solo instrumentalist might have no real hip-hop equivalent but they are both vital manifestations of black American music.

After jazz went through its last great period (the 1960s) the 1970s saw it take an exhilarating turn into cross-pollination with other forms. Led by artists with substantial bebop credentials, such as Herbie Hancock, this exciting new style was dubbed "fusion".

Hip-hop's second Golden Age (roughly from Public Enemy's 'Yo Bum Rush The Show' to DJ Shadow's 'Endtroducing') is now well and truly over. Like jazz before it, the excitement is now to be found in its fusion with other genres.

Hip-hop fusion has many faces. Timbaland's electric R'n'B productions for Missy Elliott and Aaliyah join the dots between hip-hop, 80s soul and jungle. Rap fuses with leftfield electronica on albums from Boom Bip, Anti-Pop Consortium and Prefuse 73. In England, The Streets and Roots Manuva drop beats that bounce between UK Garage, the Specials and the Wu-Tang Clan, overlaid with verbals in a strict UK vernacular.

Common's 'Electric Circus' is an example of a new hip-hop fusion movement, wrapping the textures of classic rock around a hip-hop spine. The evidence begins on the album's cover, where the cut'n'paste graphics craftily update 'Sergeant Pepper' and Common’s recently shaved head and luxuriant beard are reminiscent of 70s soul icon Isaac Hayes. Throw in song titles like 'Aquarius', 'Electric Wire Hustler Flower' and 'Jimi Was A Rock Star', and it becomes clear that Common has had a psychedelic epiphany.

While rap/rock crossover has been around since Run-DMC vs Aerosmith's 'Walk This Way', the trend has recently gained momentum. Rap groups are taking deeply retro directions, towards a sound that recalls the 70s soul-rock fusion of War, Sly & the Family Stone and the Isley Brothers. The Roots' 'Phrenology' and The Neptunes' recent album (as N.E.R.D.) both married thumping beats and fuzzy guitars to raps and high-pitched vocals with diverse and excellent results.

Common's 'Electric Circus' is similarly retroclectic, from the bizarre beauty of 'Ferris Wheel', to the effects-laden swirl of 'Electric Wire Hustle Flower', where a mass backing choir nods to Serge Gainsbourg, and a fuzz guitar rips exuberantly along with the melodic distortion of Ron Isley in his pomp. Meanwhile, Common rhymes, Sonny from P.O.D. shouts and the whole thing just about coheres.

'Come Close' is a more typical jam, with jazzy breaks in the Tribe Called Quest style, and vocals from Mary J Bilge complementing Common's easy listening rhymes. It’s a brief respite from the otherwise relentless experimentation that pits Common against Stereolab's Laetitia Sadler on 'New Wave', then introduces an array of big-band jazz samples on 'I Am Music'. Elsewhere, soulsters Bilal, Jill Scott & Erykah Badu, and various members of The Neptunes and The Roots all make pulsating contributions.

As if this 3-ring electric circus didn't have enough acts, there’s a mystery musical acrobat providing keys and guitar on 'Star *69 (PS With Love)'. It's none other than Mr Lovesexy himself, Prince. Is 'Electric Circus' hip-hop's 'Sign Of The Times'? Not quite, but it comes pretty damn close.

Luke McManus

Tracklisting: Ferris Wheel - Soul Power - Aquarius - Electric Wire Hustler Flower - The Hustle - Come Close - New Wave - Star *69 (PS With Love) - I Got a Right Ta - Between Me, You and Liberation - I Am Music - Jimi Was a Rock Star - Heaven Somewhere